Friday, August 23, 2013

Aonach Baeg and Aonach Mor: Memories and Midgies

Glen Nevis is indisputably one of Scotland's finest. The road along the valley floor, twistz and turns alomgside the fast-flowing River Nevis, as it carves its way between The Nevis Range and The Mamore mountains. The road has been improved over the years, and for much of its length is now a wide, smooth, black tarmac ribbon; where a narrow, orange surfaced strip, once crumbled its single-track way through the hills. The start of the road is busy, with West Highland way-ers meeting the throngs heading for the Ben Nevis tourist path, but every mile down Glen Nevis gets lonelier and the rush of River Nevis louder. Beyond the lower falls, the road narrows and then abruptly terminates at a car park, from which a non-motorable track continues up the Glen and through the Nevis Gorge.

Midgies and Memories. The car park at the end of Glen Nevis is packed full of both these. The first time I came here was with two friends both of whom have long since emigrated. One is in Australasia, the other in the Far East - long lost friends with whom great hill-days were once shared. That day we braved the midgies and walked the classic Ring of Steall route in the centre of the Mamores. On this latest visit I got out of the car and was immediately assaulted by a barrage of the accursed insects; landing black and thick on my arms, they stung my neck, my face, and even ventured into my ears. Knowing that even a few yards beyond the car park my torment would cease I hurled my pack on my back, jumped into my boots and took to the path.

On one infamous trip down this Glen, one of my walking companions had serious medical difficulties. Trudging up the long South-western ridge of Sgurr Choinnich Beag, this chap then in his 60s, experienced significant central chest pain. He didn't tell us why he was walking so slowly and unusually struggling with the climb until we were having dinner at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel over six hours later. We had somewhat cruelly accused him of being hung-over and unfit for the mountains. Thankfully, he survived the risk of completing the walk, but was admitted for heart surgery soon afterwards. Tragically, several years later he died of a quite separate illness.... Midgies and memories.

There is a magical moment on the Glen Nevis path when it climbs up through the dark and narrow confines of the Nevis Gorge, and suddenly breaks out into a broad  meadow, ringed by dramatic peaks and crowned with a stunning waterfall in the centre of the view. The waterfall is notoriously hard to photograph lurking in shadow most of the time, as it bursts out of its hanging-valley high above the Glen-floor. The glacial-meltwater has long gone, but the today's rains continue to run in this fluvio-glacial channels, continuing the erosive work handed down to them. As with water, so with the human mind, where thoughts and memories follow the familiar patterns of our past. And what is past here is the memory of walking this path with the friend who has now passed on. His ludicrous observations and anecdotes and seemingly endless
numbers of euphemism for farting passed the miles and the hours.

All this leads to the piles of stones known as The Steall Ruin. Its hard to imagine that many a lonely Scottish Glen was once home to thriving communities of small farmers and estate workers. Many of these fled for opportunities in cities, while many more were driven from the land in the clearances when the economic value of sheep was considered to be greater priority than the moral value of people. As I approached the Steall ruin I wondered what had happened here and I was struck by the image of a foppish 18thCentury George Osbourne driving people from the land while crying, "We're all in this together!"

Because abandoned buildings have no present, they brood over their past in a way that occupied ones do not. These stones were once the homes of people who lived, worked, loved, sang and wept in these places. No doubt these stones have witnessed the passions of newlyweds, the birth of children, ten-thousand family meals, the lighting and clearing of fireplaces, pain, suffering and death. Who once saw lights burning in the windows of these cottages and fought their way down from the bleak mountain to find shelter here from snow and storm?

The mournful stones at Steall were the turning point in my day, as here footpath tourism ended, and more hillwalking began. I struck North-Westwards, following a scratchy track towards Sgurr a Bhuic, veering just inside it's final section and making for the main ridge at Coire a Bhuic and followed it over Stob Coire Bhealaich onto the broad summit of Aonach Baeg. The flat top of this mountain is surrounded by steep sides, meaning that the lack of a pinnacle or peak is compensated for by dramatic cliffs especially on the eastern side. Navigation up until this point was straightforward, I think I only needed the compass once to get to the summit, despite the thick cloud lurking around the top few hundred feet. Navigating between Aonach Beag and Aonach Mor in cloud was much, much more tricky, but measuring my steps and checking my compass work enabled me to find the little ridge that joins the two. This connection is extremely well hidden and the surrounding slopes give little clue as to its location, and there is little margin for error with steep slopes falling way on either side of it. I was almost upon the ridge when a brief break in the cloud revealed it just below me, and its simple Northwards trek up to the large cairn atop Aonach Mor. Most visitors to this mountain reach it by cable car, and enjoy the high-level restaurant, and are there to ski, or snow board, riding up and down the northern corries on ski-tows. The summit, is in contrast a bleak and lonely place. Despite the fact that down in Glen Nevis it was warm and sunny and holiday-makers were making there way in large numbers to play in the river and swing on the rope bridge, the top of The Aonach's was cold, cloudy, and desolate.

It was in looking for the descent path into Coire Guibsachan that I made my only navigational error of the day. I should have turned westward and descended to the col between Aonach Mor and Carn Mor Dearg from the part of the ridge named as Seang Aonach Mor on the OS 1:25,000 map. Thinking I saw a path dropping from the bealach between the two Aonach's I descended to it before turning East. This soon led into an impossibly steep descent, and resulted in a tricky traverse across very steep, and slippery ground to reach the correct descent path. The path from here back to the Steal Ruin is a intermittent and boggy, but despite the unpleasant nature of what was beneath me, what was above me was looking increasingly beautiful. The afternoon sunshine burnt away the cloud which had lingered past lunchtime, and bathed the hills in soft light, high temperatures and high humidity.

My body ached, my knees hurt, but the hills shone. The walk back down Gen Nevis was magical. If I live until I am 80, I have no doubt that I will look back on day such as this with unalloyed pleasure and gratitude. Tonight as I go to sleep, I shall imagine myself once more striding across the roof of Scotland, soaking in God's good earth. Precious Days.

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